The Business of Amateurs
Scott Ross played linebacker for the University of Southern California in the late ‘80s, making multiple trips to the Rose Bowl. For most college football players, such achievements are the pinnacle of sport.
“It was like walking next to gladiators,” Ross says of his college career in the opening lines of the new documentary, The Business of Amateurs. “It was the coolest thing you could ever feel.”
Ross’ perspective changed over the years. In this documentary about the National Collegiate Athletic Association, Ross reflects on his football life and afterlife with grizzled humility, serving as an articulate spokesman for the sport’s damaged discards.
Throughout the documentary, the film’s director and producer Bob DeMars takes aim at the organization he believes chewed up thousands of college players like Ross and spat them out: the NCAA. The viewer hears the personal stories of athletes, families, and friends impacted by the system’s myriad problems, including fraudulent “paper classes”—courses designed to be passed easily—and educational plans for revenue sport athletes, restrictions on student athletes’ right to earn compensation in fields other than sports, and processes preventing athletes from receiving proper medical care.
“We really did set out to change the system,” DeMars said. “We’re hoping the film will really stir the discussion and make some positive change. What Blackfish did to SeaWorld is what we want to do to the NCAA.”
Ramogi Huma, who is featured prominently in the film as the executive director of the National College Players Association, recounts the heartbreaking situation in an interview. “It’s that type of thing that can change policies, change behaviors. You can see how crushing some of these NCAA policies are. You see families that are crushed. You see mothers in such pain. Those are the kinds of things that move people.”
We really did set out to change the system. …What Blackfish did to SeaWorld is what we want to do to the NCAA.
In at least one instance, DeMars’ film already has made an impact, even before a wide release. In 2015, DeMars got a rough cut of the documentary to former Eastern Illinois defensive back Adrian Arrington, the main plaintiff in a class-action concussion lawsuit against the NCAA, which had recently settled the case for $70 million.
The Business of Amateurs details that very settlement’s shortcomings, including its failure to mandate team rules to help minimize traumatic brain injury or provide direct support for players suffering from brain damage. After viewing the film and talking more to Huma about the issue, Arrington rejected the settlement and fired his team of lawyers, explaining he’d been “misinformed” about the settlement’s terms.
“Watching the movie helped me understand that, as a college athlete, there’s so many things you don’t know, and the things you don’t know really will hurt you,” Arrington tells GOOD. “I’m hoping it opens up a lot of eyes for people who dream about playing college sports.”
The film will be available for download Friday via multiple streaming outlets. The timing of its release feels appropriate—sandwiched between the Olympics, which earnestly pursued and found a workable solution to its failing model of amateurism decades ago by protecting fair access to its sports via the creation of the United States Olympic Committee, and the return of college football, whose leadership continues to be embroiled in various aspects of the issue.
In August, in fact, the NCAA and five co-defendants agreed to a $1.2 million settlement with the family of a Frostburg State player, who died after suffering a head injury in 2011, but the NCAA admitted no liability—though it has proposed funding concussion testing of current and former athletes.
However, two other prominent cases remain unresolved. Both sides in former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon’s lawsuit—which challenges the NCAA’s use of athletes’ names, images and likenesses without compensation—recently appealed last winter’s decision to the Supreme Court. Meanwhile, the NCAA and a group of athletic conferences are attempting to dismiss a case shepherded by lawyer Jeffrey Kessler, which seeks an injunction against the NCAA’s current limits on individual compensation for playing college sports.
Last March, President Obama told the Huffington Post, “Where I see coaches getting paid millions of dollars, athletic directors getting paid millions of dollars, the NCAA making huge amounts of money, and then some kid gets a tattoo, or gets a free use of a car, and suddenly they’re banished … That’s not fair.”
The NCAA is a billion-dollar industry. Its student-athletes are its stars, its revenue generators. And while those like Ross typically are proud of their time as college athletes, his life arguably peaked in those four short years. Meanwhile, injuries linger and health for some continues to deteriorate, exemplifying a growing and concerning issue for how we as avid viewers and how colleges as caretakers treat impressionable and eager young adults once they pass their expiration date.
“We interviewed [Ross] for five hours that day,” DeMars, himself a former football player at USC, says of his initial interview with the soft-spoken ex player. “When we dropped him off [after filming], he could barely walk.”
Ross’ condition, both physically and mentally, deteriorates as the film progresses. Soon he’s leaving DeMars voicemails and texts in the middle of the night, sharing details about his alcoholism, depression, and diagnosed dementia caused by repeated head contact.
A year to the day after the interview, Ross’ body was found decomposing in his car outside a church in Louisiana. After ingesting a fatal combination of alcohol and prescription drugs, he died from a heart attack. Ross was 45.
NCAA representatives could not be reached for comment for this story. Says DeMars, “I’m hoping this film gives [efforts to change the NCAA] a shot in the arm.”